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I very much like the series of films that have been put together using the BFI’s vast archive, of which this 2018 release – by Paul Wright – is the latest. There’s something about the historical aspect, and the general strangeness of some of the footage (particularly from the earlier half of the last century) that appeals, as well as the fact that they serve as illuminating guides to British life and highlight some important 20th century social change, with regard to class, gender politics, leisure time, war, immigration, declining industry, etc.

Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All was a spirited run-through of romance in British cinema (scored, aptly, by crooner Richard Hawley); Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Show Of Shows examined circuses and other similar forms of entertainment with a soundtrack from Sigur Rós and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson; and Penny Woolcock’s From The Sea To The Land Beyond was a powerful illustration of life lived at the coast, with British Sea Power re-purposing some of their earlier songs for the occasion. Wright’s film is, roughly speaking, about the countryside, and he uses the setting to explore aspects of the British psyche and society, pointedly depicting both a bucolic Utopia – indeed ‘Utopia’ is one of several intertitles used to split the film into specific segments or chapters – and a more nightmarish, psychedelic space that’s characterised by folk horror, disturbing or bizarre rituals, huge class and economic gulfs and plenty more besides. This one has been scored by Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp, though some traditional and atmospheric folk music makes the cut too.

I liked the score, overall, as it shifts and encompasses different styles of music, depending on the chapter, but it does begin to affect your interpretation of the footage a little too much for my liking. For example, the ominous-sounding thrum that accompanies film of Morris men dancing suggests a dark, menacing undertone to the action that is taking place, and while such dancers are certainly seen as being quirky today, I’m not entirely sure they represent British folk tradition at its weirdest or most threatening. But still, the music certainly helps to tie all of the assembled footage together, so I’m wary of complaining too much about it; it’s a soundtrack I would like to buy, but haven’t got round to yet.

While watching the film, I found that some of the dots that Wright joins together are a bit of a stretch; one example would be a section in which punk – really something I’d say was a preserve of more urban areas, particularly during its heyday – is linked to the underground raves and festivals that became emblematic of British outsider culture, and were later turned into massive cash-generating enterprises by some rural landowners. I guess there is a wider point being made here, perhaps about the way in which culture more recently has tended to trickle outwardly from cities, but it does seem a little unclear to me; and while there’s certainly a theme here about people escaping to the countryside to let themselves go – nude hippies and naturalists feature regularly throughout – any footage here that looks like it was made in a town or city seems oddly intrusive and out of place.

That said, part of the appeal of Arcadia is its oddness, the times when its rambling looseness and the accumulation of footage seems to build into or generate something greater, some repeated point about how strange British people are; although there is a coherence and organisation too, mostly thanks to the chapter-based structure. It is a restless work that is packed with ideas and there are many successfully forged links, while there is definitely a thrill to be had in going along with it and simply enjoying the sheer variety of archive material that Wright has uncovered and used. Perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much if some aspects are tied together more tightly than others.

I thought Arcadia is at its best when it is suggesting an underlying oddness existing within the countryside, but there is real breadth to the included footage: fox hunting, the beauty of the landscape and nature (as well as its harmfulness), farming, cheese-rolling, the gradual removal of services from village life – there is much to ponder in this deliciously offbeat amalgamation. It probably lands better with those who have experience of living in the UK and who will therefore pick up on some of the subtler suggestions, but I dare say if you have a more general interest in life anywhere there is something for you to enjoy. As it stands, it probably just about edges Frederick Wiseman’s thorough paean to the community services of the New York Public Library, Ex Libris, and Agnès Varda and JD’s warm study of art, ageing and people, Faces, Places, as my favourite documentary of 2018. (4.5)

This documentary by Kim Longinotto explores depictions of love on film during the 20th Century, mining the British Film Institute’s archives in order to detail the way in which attitudes, legal positions and more have changed across society during that period. Like Penny Woolcock’s entertaining coastal study From The Sea To The Land Beyond, which made similar use of professional and amateur archive footage to illustrate social change in 20th Century Britain, Longinotto’s film was commissioned for Sheffield DocFest and was recently shown on the BBC as part of this year’s Storyville season.

Woolcock’s film featured a stirring soundtrack by the band British Sea Power and, continuing the trend, Longinotto’s documentary is scored by the Sheffield balladeer Richard Hawley, fittingly a songwriter who has kept one eye on the past (be it the influence of 1950s crooners on his early solo work and image or the more recent  tendency towards psychedelia). The film is semi-linear, with thematic segments generally edited around Hawley’s songs, and the loose structure slowly guides us through the century in question: Love Is All begins with a clip from the 1899 silent comedy The Kiss In The Tunnel and finishes with scenes taken from Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane.

In between there’s a dizzying and diverse array of romantic imagery, stitched together by Longinotto and editor Ollie Huddleston in a way that often generates the necessary level of joie de vivre, while also being intermittently tailored towards the more downbeat issues of pain and longing that are never too far away. There’s plenty of footage of men and women dancing, stealing kisses, enjoying clinches and sharing meaningful glances to begin with, but as the film progresses Longinotto uses the assembled material to explore a number of related issues: class divides, the male gaze, multiculturalism and interracial relationships, lesbian and gay relationships, an increase in both liberalism and tolerance, and much more. There’s a strong emphasis on female empowerment throughout, as well as a triumphant recognition of the British film industry’s role in both shaping and reflecting attitudes toward homosexuality.

While Love Is All includes longer selections from relevant works, such as Ewald André Dupont’s Piccadilly (a 1929 vehicle for the first Chinese-American film star Anna May Wong), Lloyd Reckord’s groundbreaking homoerotic mid-60s short Dream A40 and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Launderette, inevitably it is the older footage – be it old-fashioned courtship rituals or women practicing jujitsu – that intrigues the most, presumably due to its relative distance from the modern day. Yet, despite all the developments in British society shown throughout the film, Longinotto recognises that there’s also an ongoing consistency: as the title suggests, ‘love is all’, and – put simply – as a basic concept love does not change over time.

Some of the recurring imagery used to illustrate this equilibrium is a little obvious (trains and tunnels being a predictable favourite of fnarr-fnarring filmmakers throughout the decades, it would seem), but this is isn’t a criticism of the filmmaker, who is merely reflecting trends and ideas subscribed to by others. Given the focus on taboo-busting the documentary is notably coy about the subject of sex, though who knows whether that’s Longinotto’s choice or not. I’m speculating mischievously here, but perhaps it was a condition of the commission; the film was first screened at the stately home Chatsworth House, after all, and although attitudes may have changed I imagine it isn’t the kind of venue that would wish to be associated with scenes of rampant, sweaty rutting (unless it’s the local stags). (The setting didn’t stop Hawley from dropping a c-bomb in the middle of a Q&A session, mind.)

Love Is All is well worth seeing; the source material is stitched together inventively, and much of it is haunting, beautiful and often very moving (I’m a sucker for elderly couples, m’lud, and the mere sight of them regularly brings me to tears). The broad range of the selected footage, which presumably took a long time to discover and finalise, should also be applauded; it’s no surprise that Longinotto, perhaps better known for her documentaries about female oppression or discrimination, has worked with Huddleston again on the newly-released Dreamcatcher (which, incidentally, was turned down by the BBC as it didn’t want to fund ‘another documentary about prostitutes’). Many of the clips chosen and edited here are given fresh context by Hawley’s songs, and even a new lease of life in some cases, while the musician’s work is also illuminated in return.

The Basics:
Directed by: Kim Longinotto
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 74 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.8

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